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Wired for Success

The Terminal Man, by Michael Crichton Alfred A. Knopf, 247 pp., $6.95

By Esther Dyson

THERE'S A SLEW of intriguing questions left unanswered even after the finalstring-tying pages of The Terminal Man. Who will hire author Michael Crichton to write the screenplay? Who will direct it? And most intriguing of all, who will star as the terminal man, and who will play the lady psychiatrist who tries to save him?

The premises of The Terminal Man do raise other, more significant questions, but Crichton drops them almost with embarassment, for The Action Must Go On. Harry Benson, a slightly nutty computer programmer who fears that machines are taking over the world, is subject to dangerous fits. Disregarding the opposition of Janet Ross, the psychiatrist who fears a disturbance of Benson's precarious mental balance, a team of neurosurgeons implants a tiny computer terminal in his brain, designed to counteract the abnormal brainwaves that precede his epileptic seizures. Of course, the operation is not quite successful....

Harry is soon roaming the streets of Los Angeles, with his next fit due within six hours. Now--while the police are busy bunting Benson and Janet is sipping coffee in the staffroom--is the time for some exposition. The book contains an ample number of thoughtful, "relevant" digressions: an aside about the Los Angeles's "indigenous depersonalization syndrome" (p. 138), an interview with a potential "pleasure-addict" who wants to have the pleasure centers of his brain wired for continual stimulation (pages 82 to 84), and references throughout to the ascendancy of the machine. We are treated to a titillating hint of Janet's sex life (Arthur, the owner of "a yellow Ferrari, a lot of dash, and a lot of charm") and a non-stereotyped cop (Will he provide the love interest in the film?) who at one point indignantly announces that he's been to college.

CRICHTON IS a good writer, and he's been to college too. His Harvard (undergraduate and medical) training has stood him in good stead, but ultimately the novel is little more than a thriller. Crichton is an old hand at those. Not yet 30, he's already had several fair-to-middling successes under a variety of pen names as well as his 1969 best-seller The Andromeda Strain. The Terminal Man shows the benefits of past experience: Only an old hand could think of a sign saying "DO NOT FEED OR MOLEST THE COMPUTER."

Crichton has also written a reputable work of nonfiction, Five Patients, exposing conditions he witnessed during his medical training. Clearly, he knows his stuff, and making science engrossing is an admirable venture. An unnecessarily pretentious forward states: "There has been so much ominous talk and frivolous speculation for so many years that the public now regards mind control as a problem removed to the distant future..."

The book attempts to render, the issue immediate: the chapters are labeled with such headings as "TUESDAY, MARCH 9, 1971: ADMISSION"; there are graphs and charts, even maps of the brain on the endpapers, plus a five-page bibliography on psychomotor epilepsy and surgical treatments.

But the characters and even the plot remain shadowy. Crichton is enough of a master to keep us unsure of the ending, but not enough to keep us worried about it. The concept of mind control is fascinating and terrifying, and, as Crichton notes. "The truth was that everybody's mind was controlled, and everybody was glad of it. The most powerful mind controllers in the world were parents, and they did the most damage...Newborn children were little computers waiting to be programmed." Unfortunately, such insight does not pervade the book; it merely provides token philosophy. If you're looking for fundamentals, there's always the bibliography.

In any case, until the movie comes along with stars to flesh out the rather meagre characters, this is a well-wrought thriller with more thought and flair than you're likely to find anywhere this side of Serious Literature. And besides, it's one book that certainly won't spoil the movie.

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